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Bicycle Coalition

Photo: Spruce Street, after a shoveling by resident Jon Williams

Jon Williams was fed up with the city’s response to the snow in the bike lanes outside his house. So, he grabbed a shovel, put on some warm clothes, and shoveled out the bike lanes on Fourth and Fifth Streets along Spruce, near his Society Hill home.

“The goal was just to try to maintain this block of the Spruce bike lane for fun when I have time,” he said. “I cleared leaves in the lane in December as well, since I think those get slippery.”

Every winter, bicycle commuters continue braving the snow and ice, but bike lanes themselves are rarely plowed—even when the adjacent street, is. This is a problem in which, so far, the city hasn’t seemed to figure out a solution. But as more people  commute via bicycle all year in Philadelphia, we all need to find a way to ensure bike lanes are clear of ice and snow.

The northeast recently got hit with a few snow and ice storms. I noticed no on-street lanes along my own route were plowed. And to figure out, at least anecdotally, which bike lanes had been plowed around the city during this year’s snow storms, so far, I reached out to Philly Bike Twitter.

The response I got: For the most part, bike lanes were still covered in snow, all over the city. Very few, if any, bike lanes were intentionally plowed.

Here’s a brief rundown of the responses I’ve received:

Perhaps most notably, the new West Chestnut Street protected bike lane was a mess.

What was plowed? The protected bike lane that runs behind the old Yards Brewery to Sugarhouse Casino, and the trail behind the casino itself. East Snyder Avenue was reported “cleared,” as well, and so was the Ben Franklin Parkway. On my own rides and walks around the city, I haven’t seen any other that were cleared for cyclists after last week’s snow storm. I’d be open to hearing about any other lanes that were cleared, though, if they were. (Tweet at me, and I’ll add some good news to this blog!)

The city’s trails are generally cleared. This morning, for instance, Kelly Drive was largely clear (except when it really, really wasn’t), as were Schuylkill Banks and the Boardwalk. But it’s not always clear. And after sending many requests via email and through Twitter to Philadelphia Parks and Recreation over the last month, they’ve agreed to come up with a strategy for plowing Philadelphia’s trails, which are used by hundreds of people every day, for commuting and recreation. They plan on sharing it with the Bicycle Coalition, and we will share it with you.

City bike lanes are another story entirely.

According to an email from the City of Philadelphia, “Bike lanes are part of the overall street operation and cleared as part of the general snow emergency. If users of the bike lanes encounter specific issues, they are encouraged to call 311.”

This has always been the case. According to an email I got from a Streets Department representative on January 11, 2017, “The Streets Department recognizes the need to clear bike lanes of snow and ice.  When a snow emergency is declared, crews attempt to clear bike lanes as part of our overall street operation.  If users of the bike lanes encounter specific issues, they are encouraged to call 311.”

The Bicycle Coalition in the past has requested a list of “priority” bike lanes for plowing, which has not yet come to fruition. At least not officially. More often, snow from the street is often plowed into the bike lane and crosswalk, leaving nowhere for cyclists to go except the middle of the street itself, where they are left more vulnerable to motor vehicle traffic.

Leaving piles of snow in the crosswalk also makes life even more difficult for people with disabilities. That’s why people like Jon Williams have taken up their own shovels.

Bicycle CoalitionSo what’s there to do? Philadelphians are, of course, free (and encouraged) to continually call 311 and make requests for plowing. We can’t guarantee they will come out if you call 311 about snow in the bike lane, but the more people who complain about a given issue, the more likely the city is to have to solve the problem, if only out of sheer pressure.

There are resource and personnel issues, of course, but it doesn’t seem like too much to ask to designate some of the city’s most-used bike lanes, especially when they’re right next to streets that are already being plowed for motorists. What the city needs is a Complete Streets team (it doesn’t have to be called that) dedicated entirely to fixing individual problems with bike lanes, sidewalks and streets. Whether it be broken plastic bollards on the Chestnut Street protected bike lane and future PBLs, or clearing a bike lane covered in snow and ice, or creating a path at an ADA-compliant curb ramp that’s covered in a foot of snow. This is the natural next step toward real street maintenance.

In Washington, D.C., the District Department of Transportation has small Toolcat plows, specifically for bike lane plowing. Many other cities have these, too, but Philadelphia does not.

We understand the city isn’t going to turn around and buy one of these cool Tool cats tomorrow. But Philadelphia citizens are, more and more, demanding more basic maintenance of their streets. A team dedicated to that would be a large step forward.

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